Chillagoe’s Tommy Prior

 

TOMMY PRIOR

Far North Queensland Legend

“The following is the story of an Outback Character that we often visit on tour and serves to demonstate the tremendous depth of involvement these characters have had in the creation of Far North Queensland’s history” – Gary Bondeson 

Introduction

When visiting the small Outback town of Chillagoe in Far North Queensland, Tommy Prior is always on the ‘must see’ list. This barefooted local legend’s family has not only been in the region from its origin in the 1800’s but has played an integral part of its development as they forged an existence in this hostile rugged outback. Tommy played his part with the use of his ever-reliable Ford vehicles and bush mechanic skills. He still has most of those original vehicles and if anybody shows a hint of doubt about their condition, Tommy will start them up, being a testament to their reliability and his mechanical skills. Close friends may have been lucky enough to view the sketchbook from his youth.  He says he was able to accurately sketch a vehicle in the finest detail after walking around it just once. I’ve seen those drawings and they show amazing detail and demonstrate his long-term love affair with Fords.

Tommy and I became good friends since first meeting in the late ninety’s after arriving in Chillagoe to begin an accommodation facility. In October 2016, after agreeing to do his autobiography while his memory was still sharp, we arranged to meet at noon to begin collecting material. I arrived about 15 minutes before 12 and found Tommy replacing a fitting on his diesel storage tank. Knowing his mental clock had timed this task to be finished at noon, I waited for him to finish his task. He was working slowly and deliberately, often talking to himself to try and urge the fitting to slide into place. When finished he began picking up his tools, carefully and slowly returning each one back to its correct place. I thought that this behavior typified Tommy – methodical and purposeful.

We sat and began chatting and I was constantly amazed at the stories he shared with me. It became obvious that although Tommy is a small man, he is one to take orders from rather than give orders to. He had in his possession, large amounts of history already collated by his family and friends as well as hundreds of photos, much of which had been gathered for previous tributes to Tommy.

As it was somewhat a tradition for families to take the Christian name of other family members, (and this was definitely the case with the Prior family), throughout the following I will refer to our legend not as Thomas or Tom but always as Tommy to avoid confusion with other family members.

In the Beginning

The Prior story in Australia begins when Thomas and Eliza Prior and their seven Children (Esther 15, Tom 13, Mary 12, Elizabeth 10, Sarah 8, Walter 2, and infant Henry) were handpicked for the voyage on the immigrant ship “Utopia”, the first immigrant ship to sail directly from England (Plymouth) to Australia (Rockhamton) arriving in Australia in November 1862. An elder daughter (Susan 17) somehow arrived in Rockhampton a month earlier. Rockhampton was established less than a decade earlier. The Fitzroy River provided a convenient waterway for shipping of supplies and a settlement grew on the riverbanks just downstream of a bar of rocks which prevented further upstream navigation from the coast. These rocks were incorporated into the traditional English term for a village, and the name “Rockhampton” was first used. There had been great eagerness within the small community in Central Queensland to attract people to the area. “The arrival of a shipload of immigrants in this district would be indeed a great boon. Labor is very much in request for up-country employments, and 200 or 300 immigrants would be speedily taken up by our settlers.” appeared in the first issue of the Rockhampton Bulletin, dated 29 July 1861.

 

The 108-day voyage navigated around the Cape of Good Hope and the bottom of Tasmania. Infant Henry died soon after arrival probably due to the poor water quality. Thomas and Eliza then had two more children, Fanny and Henry (named in honor his deceased brother).

In the mid 1870’s Tom and his younger brother Walter decided to get a bullock team together and head north to Cooktown to carry goods for the Chinese who were flocking to the newly discovered Palmer River goldfields where prospector Venture Mulligan had staked a gold claim in 1872 which led to one of Australia’s largest gold rushes. There were many carriers already on the field so they took some local advice and turned their attention to the South where a timber industry was beginning to form assisted by further discoveries by Mulligan, this time it was tin in the late 1870’s. The region required supplies as the Tablelands began opening up and a thriving industry in red cedar (Red Gold) had developed providing reliable work for their bullock team.

In aproximately 1880, Tom and Walter drove the first bullock team to haul cedar through the Tolga Scrub (just north of the current town of Atherton) after one of Muligan’s mates, (Christy Palmeston and 2 others) had marked out a track that was soon be used to cart stores and building materials in Port Douglas to the fast developing, tin mining town of Herberton. The journey could take up to 2 weeks one way and be impassible in the wet season. The Prior brothers were the first Europeans occupants to settle near Mazlin Creek (just North of Atherton) in eucalypt woodlands to pasture their bullocks use in the harvesting and marketing of red cedar growing in the adjacent rainforrest in an area that became known as Prior Pocket. Prior Creek is a reminder of that early settlement. It was hard work and reprisals from Aboriginals were always a risk. Police Constable Hansen and a black tracker were stationed at Prior’s Pocket to protect the Europeans and their property from the Aboriginals. Tom and Walter were a handy combination and are credited with building the first hotel in the area (Kelly’s Pub) serving the early settlers and later guests of the stagecoach company “Cob and Co”.

In the late 1880’s the brothers purchased a traction engine from Scotland to replace their bullock team. It was driven and pulled up the Bump Track behind Port Douglas onto the Tablelands and once up on the flatter area west of the range, was able to be driven under its own steam where it was used for a number of years to haul timber. Tom never married but Walter fostered a family that included Walter (junior), Tommy’s grandfather born in 1886 and was enroled with his sister Sarah at the Carrington State school when it opened 1894

The OK Mine

In 1903, at the newly established OK copper mine 75kms NW of Chillagoe, Abdul Wade’s 400 camels hauling ore to the newly established (1901) railhead at Mungana 15kms west of Chillagoe were proving expensive, caused labor difficulties with the unions and were susceptible to the local poison bush (Cooktown Ironwood). As a result, ten wood-burning traction engines were contracted by the company, including the Prior machine for carting to and from Mungana. It was hard and hot work driving these tractors pulling 15 to 20 tons that took 2 days each way to negotiate the hilly and rough terrain. They also had to take on water and wood every few km and there was little or no surface water so wells had to be dug and woodcutters employed to strategically place piles of wood along the track.

The history of the regional mining was both scandalous and erratic causing closures and uncertainty but Tom and Walter appeared to have weathered the storm. Tommy’s Dad, Tom, was born in 1912.

Towards the end of production at the OK the Priors began using Ford V8 trucks to cart the ore which cut the journey to just 4 hours at 5 tons per load. The mine shut in 1942 but one of these trucks remained in the family throughout the war years and was used to help build aerodromes and cart supplies to cattle stations.

Mungana

Although the Chillagoe smelter was proving to be unprofitable, it remained operational as a government effort to try to combat the great depression, employing over a thousand men processing ore from many small mines in the region, the largest being Mungana at the end of the railway line from Cairns. The family continued to work in mining-related industries and from 1930’s until 1943 a lot of Prior families lived in Mungana side by side. Tom married Alice in 1937 and in 1938 ‘Tommy’ was born, one year before the beginning of the Second World War at the old Chillagoe hospital on a hill on the Eastern side on the town (where the remains are still visible today). His brother Alan was the 2nd baby born in 1939 in the new hospital that is still in use today. Because Tommy’s father worked in an essential industry he didn’t go to war.

By 1930, Henry Fords’ Model T had carved out an enviable reputation for outback motoring in Far North Queensland for the best part of 20 years. While motor vehicles were still relatively scarce west of Cairns, the Model T (affectional know as the TM) would have been the most reliable. It was inexpensive, robust, simple to maintain, agile and easy to drive on the roads of the day and by the time Tommy was 3yo, he was starting to take an interest in Ford cars and trucks spending hours drawing them on the ground with a nail.

On trips away, Tommy would often get car sick so Tom would sit him on his lap and let him steer the wheel. This became common practice everywhere they went and by the time Tommy was 7yo he could’ve driven if only his legs were just a little longer.

Chillagoe

The population of Mungana was dropping significantly from almost 600 in 1911 to less than a 100 in 1933. In 1942 the closure of the Chillagoe smelter was imminent leading to the demise of the town. Tom swapped a specimen (probably red cuprite, a valuable copper oxide gemstone) for the mines managers’ house, dismantled it and rebuilt it in Chillagoe at the base of Mt Coonbeeta. The smelter finally closed in 1943 and the war ended in 1945.

When the smelter shut, Tom had to look for work elsewhere but eventually returned to Chillagoe, bought a truck and began mail runs and carting to the surrounding cattle stations including Wrotham Park owned by his school friend, Walter Laurence. This provided Tom with work for about 9 years, braving the elements of the rough bush roads of the time becoming a good bush mechanic (skills he eventually passed on to his firstborn, Tommy) and always managing to get the truck home. Tommy looked up to his father and I feel envious of the relationship they must’ve had, often accompanying Tom out bush carting, sitting on his lap and steering the truck. Tommy started primary school in Chillagoe in 1944 at the age of 6 and although he suffered from a speech impediment, he was excellent at his school work and also the teacher’s pet. By the age of 10, his legs had grown long enough to drive Tom’s truck.

Meanwhile, life in Chillagoe was fairly simple. The Priors’ had their own chooks, ducks, goats for milk and a great vegetable garden. Wild game such as squatter pigeons, wild turkeys, and ducks was on the menu and his Mom, Alice would stuff the squatter pigeons for the school lunches. Alice was an accomplished pianist and played at many functions held in Chillagoe. Other activities included tennis and cricket, going to the open air Picture Theater, picnics, swimming in the Chillagoe Creek and bush horserace meetings, also camping, especially at Machan’s Beach just north of Cairns. Most Christmas holidays were spent with the Lawrence family at Wrotham Park station, a 600,000-hectare cattle station located 100kms west of Chillagoe. It was a very festive and formal occasion. Everybody dressed for dinner, with the best crockery and cutlery provided and Walter Lawrence would be head of the table and carve the meat. In those days children were seen and not heard.

On Christmas day the aboriginal workers were invited to attend the main house where they provided entertainment in the form of aboriginal ceremonial dances called corroborees. Outgrown cloths were wrapped as gifts and handed out to the aboriginal children by Santa. Walter’s 3 daughters were very close to the Prior family and would stay with the Priors in Chillagoe when they came to town. Chillagoe had become a tight-knit town and everybody attended all the social events and the Prior house was always full of children.

Since those early days of drawing Ford trucks in the dirt Tommy had progressed to drafting accurate and finely detailed Ford trucks and cars simply through observation and says he was later offered an opportunity to design for the Ford Motor Company in Victoria but declined.

Tommy started secondary school in 1951 in Mareeba at the age of 13 but left after 3 months to commence an apprenticeship at the mining town of Mount Garnet with Tablelands Tin. His brother Allan also began (but didn’t complete) an apprenticeship there as an electrician. On holidays Tommy used to go to Wrotham Park station to work for his Dads school chum, Walter Lawrence.

In 1954 the Prior family moved as Tom had started work with the Irrigation and Water Supply who were constructing irrigation channels from the newly created Tinaroo Dam north towards the Mareeba and Dimbulah region between Chillagoe and Cairns.

Walter Lawrence

“There’s a funny story about old Walter” Tommy says. Walter had been Dingo trapping and happened to be at Mungana Pub drinking when Mrs. Wright (who owned Wrotham Park) came into town in a sulky and announced she was looking for a good head stockman. Just then Walter walked out of the pub and around the corner to relieve himself. “Walter is a good stockman” the publican said. Mrs. Wright peeped around the corner only to turn around with a smile on her face and said “That’s the man for me!”

“This is the way the story goes” Tommy added to confirm that he was only repeating what all his mates already knew. When Walter walked back she asked him to come and work for her. Walter began working at Wrotham Park, married Mrs. Wright’s daughter and had three daughters. Tommy says that because Walter never had any sons, he would often suggest that Tommy should marry one of his daughter and help run the station, an obvious sign of his feeling towards Tommy.

Wrotham Park

Tommy completed his 5 year apprenticeship as Fitter and Turner in 1956 and went to work as the head mechanic/truck driver at Wrotham Park station servicing and maintaining all vehicles, carting goods, fencing materials and other things, doing one load per week to Chillagoe taking two hours. Tommy even assisted to change a motor in a DC3 in 1958, plus other small planes from time to time

 Wrotham Park had the biggest fleet of Ford trucks and cars in Qld from 1945 to 1963 and in 1958, the Ford Motor Company was sponsoring the Miss Australia pageant and a film was to be made at Wrotham Park with all the Ford fleet. People flew in from all over and a brand new 1958 F100 utility was delivered to run Miss Australia around, Tommy being the nominated driver for Tania Verstack who was a beautiful 21yo Chinese born of Russian heritage.

Tom Condon

Tommy became friends with Tom Condon when they both worked at Wrotham Park. “Tom was a likable gentleman,” says Tommy “But he had a drinking problem that tended to make him unreliable. Tom was not only a gentleman but could also play the accordion, mouth organ and sing so was always popular at gatherings. He had his own truck and would cart for Wrotham Park but was often found on the return trip from Chillagoe, fallen out of his truck and laying drunk and unconscious in the hot sun and in the middle of the road”.

The Mungana pub seemed to be the culprit that trapped him on the return journey. Port and hot beer was his drink of choice. In 1958 Tommy was asked to take over from Tom because of his unreliable ways but there were no ill feelings and they remained best friends until Tom Died in 1989. Tommy says he was found unconscious under a high set house with a head wound. “He must’ve slipped over and hit his head on one of the house posts”. Tommy says they did a post-mortem and found him riddled with cancer from laying in the hot sun for hours (or days) on those return trips to Wrotham Park.

Tommy’s 21st

In 1959 Tommy arrived back at Wrotham Park from after carting 60 tons of wire/posts for fencing and two of Walter’s daughters, Vera and Thea, had organized a 21st party for him. His parents were still living in Mutchilba working for the Irrigation and Water Supply over 180kms away and could not attend, but his mother sent up his present which was a Regent shockproof watch – he still wears that watch today when not working on his Fords.

The Atherton Tablelands was a training ground for both Australian and American troops so, after the war, military vehicles including Ford and Chev Blitz were a common sight in the North. They were cheap and proved to be an ideal workhorse, often modified to suit whatever was expected of them. Tommy bought his first 1944 model Ford Blitz in 1959 for 650 pounds and claimed it was capable of carrying 7 tons at a top speed of 80kph on an unsealed road.

Jack and Newell

In 1880 Willy Jack and John Newell were part of a prospecting party that found a rich lode of tin just about 100kms south west of Cairns. Within weeks they had established the Great Northern Mine which led to the creation of Herberton were the Prior boys began carting timber and mining supplies, perhaps even goods for Jack and Newell.

While John Newell was working up the Great Northern Mine, Willy Jack opened a desperately needed general store with investments from his share of the profits and was soon turning over $6000 per month, an enormous sum for the era. John Newell entered the business in 1882 forming the partnership they called ‘Jack and Newell’.

Through a miraculous transportation network based on telegrams, letters, ships, bullock drays, packhorse and later railways and motor transport, storekeepers managed to provide a staggering array of merchandise including fuel but never sold alcohol. From their headquarters in Herberton, Jack & Newell stores simply followed the miners; supplying food, clothing, building materials, mining equipment and medicines in even the most remote of mining towns.


By the end of the 1930s, as the minerals ran out and the towns dwindled, Jack & Newell had consolidated to 7 stores, located in the Far North’s key commercial centers including Chillagoe.
They retained their reputation as mining suppliers and ore buyers in Herberton, but their Mt Garnet and Chillagoe stores became essential suppliers for cattle stations; their Mossman business serviced the town’s dominant cane industry, and Mt Molloy and Mareeba had the region’s tobacco farmers on their books. They also retained their reputation for supplying anything and everything their customers needed. Whether it was saddles, fencing wire, fuel, wood stoves, sides of bacon, fresh fruit, shampoo, perfume or sugar sacks, Jack & Newell could supply it.


As these outback towns started to struggle, so did Jack and Newell’s general stores and they began reducing some of their more costly goods such as fuel. After consideration, Tommy took over the fuel supply duties. Through the late 70s and early 80s, Jack & Newell stores at Herberton, Mossman, Mt Garnett and Chillagoe were gradually sold, as was their Cairns business and premises. 


The Jack & Newell apartment building has been built on the site of their Cairns operations, Tommy has the fuel contract in Chillagoe.

Chillagoe revisited

Tommy worked at Wrotham Park station until in 1963 and a new manager, Gordon Arnold, was appointed. Tom and 4 others (Tim Nicholls, Tom Condon, Jack Gibson, and Tommy McDonald) weren’t too keen on the new manager’s ways. Although still contracting to Wrotham Park station as well as anybody else who required services, they moved into Chillagoe and lived together. Jack Gibson ended up buying a house from Tommy’s Great Uncle that became known as the ‘House of Lords’ and was located on the opposite corner to the original Chillagoe school.

Tommy had met his future wife Bonnie when she was working at Chillagoe station doing general house duties a couple of years earlier. Bonnie and her son Warren also moved into the ‘House of Lords’ before Tommy, Bonnie and Warren rented a house belonging to Ted Strickfuss in 1964, not far from where Tommy’s father had moved their house from Mungana. At about the same time on one of Tommy’s Cairn’s trips to get supplies for Wrotham Park station, he was approached by the manager at BP. The Jack and Newell general store in Chillagoe had the fuel depot but due to the reduction of mining in the region, were decreasing their outlets and closing down their Chillagoe fuel supply business. BP needed a replacement so Tommy was asked if he would be interested in setting up his own fuel depot in Chillagoe. Tommy thought about it for a week or so before returning to Cairns to advise that he was interested and became the BP agent in Chillagoe, running it in conjunction with his carting business. He needed extra space to develop his new business venture so in 1965 purchased a 20-year-old nearby house from Mrs. Peel. Tommy began improvising to ensure everything ran as smoothly as possible. He would get fuel sent up on the train once a week from Cairns but initially had no ramp at his newly created fuel depot so the fuel drums had to be rolled up off the ground until a year later his brother Alan constructed a ramp and tank stand while the other brother Trevor and 4 mates (Gordon Bird, Rod Whiting, Tom Condon and George Gates) worked for Tommy doing all the carting out bush as far as the aboriginal community of Kowanyama 400kms away where a mission was being rebuilt after being recently destroyed by a cyclone. The combination was proving successful and Tommy purchased a Fowler crane for 400ponds using it to move drums of fuel and any other work required of it. It still sits at his depot with a suspected blown head gasket as Tommy threatens to one day get it going again.

Tommy was well liked amongst his peers and every New Year’s Eve would burn his old tires at the smelter ruins causing the main chimney to smoke as it did earlier that century and when the then Premier of Queensland, Joh” Bjelke-Petersen, arrived in 1982 to inspect the newly established marble industry, Tommy chauffeured him around and lit up all 3 chimney’s. In 1985 National Parks asked him to stop due to the obvious pollution it was causing. Tommy says with a smile that it was much less than the original pollution that bellowed out of those smoke stacks.

Old Ben

One of Tommy’s favorite stories is how his Ford Blitz (Old Ben) performed above and beyond its expectations when in 1964 Walter Laurence of Wrotham Park station had purchased a new house that was to be delivered as a flat pack. It took 3 semi-trailers to move the load over the unsealed road when they all struck problems on a steep incline on the Koorboora range about 70kms East of Chillagoe. Walter asked Tommy if he could go out and do what he could to assist. Tommy took two of his trucks, the F600 driven by Tom Condon and Old Ben. On the way they found the drivers waiting at the Railway Hotel at Almaden. One said to Tommy “You will need a bulldozer to pull those trucks over the range!”

Tommy and Tom Condon transported the drivers back to their stranded vehicles, one with a burnt out clutch. Tommy hooked up the first semi carrying a 22-ton load and pulled it over the range before repeating this effort with all the trucks then towing the clutch-less vehicle back to Chillagoe. A clutch was ordered and sent up by train and was repaired on the main street in front of the Post Office Hotel and they then all set off for Wrotham Park in convoy.

But their troubles weren’t over yet. It had been raining and the roads were boggy in places. Tommy knew these spots well and commented they would need to attack these soft areas at full speed but there weren’t enough horses under the bonnet and the first semi came to a stop and sunk to the axels. “We will definitely need a Bull Dozer this time Tommy!” one of the drivers remarked but Tommy sat back, studied the situation and made a billy of tea before rallying the boys to fill the blitz with 3 to 4 tons of rock to help get some traction before once again hooking up to the trucks and pulling them through. They finally all arrived at Wrotham Park with the amazing story of Tommy and Old Ben’s efforts but again there was an issue. How were they going to unload the 62 ton cargo? Tommy said “I have a crane back at Chillagoe that could do the job!” referring to his recently purchased Fowler crane bought to move drums of fuel. He sent Tom Condon back in the F600 to pick it up and upon returning, Tommy not only unloaded to house flat-pack but leveled a large space of land for Walter.

Tommy never mentions money matters but it must’ve been a very profitable exercise, as well as a great adventure that reassured any doubters what the formidable combination of Tommy and Old Ben were capable of.

The Family

In January 1966 daughter Susan was born followed by a son Thomas in October 1967. After their third child, daughter Sharon in January 1969, Tommy and Bonnie were married at the Chillagoe Courthouse. Tommy is obviously an astute business person making wise decisions as his business thrived and decided to invest in a larger capacity truck. He drove to Townsville with Bonnie to trade his Ford F600 on an F8000 464cu supercharged diesel and upon his return to Chillagoe late in the evening they were greeted by the whole town who had never seen such a monster.

In September 1970, daughter Lynette was followed by daughter Judith in May 1974. Tommy and his family were always involved in town activities and would cart passengers from the train to the caves in the back of his truck – what an adventure that must’ve been for the uninitiated. He even repaired the Chillagoe train once when it broke down while he was onboard. In 1972 electrical power came to town. The sound of generators stopped and the open air picture theater closed. Tommy’s family were one of the first to have a television with a snowy picture being broadcast from Mt Bartle Frere on the coast. He still has that television sitting in the corner of his lounge. Of course it’s now obsolete but in true Tommy fashion, it has its place, just in case.

In 1992 the railway closed with a promise by  State Government to spend a million dollars per year on the Chillagoe road upgrade but a change in State Government altered the policy and Chillagoe is still without a completely sealed road to this day (2016).

Gordon Hamil

In 1979 Tommy had to take a load to Koolatah station that required two trucks and two drivers. He asked his mate Gordon Hamil (who happened to be in town) to be the second driver. They departed Chillagoe late in the afternoon, their first stop was at the Mitchell River for a cup of tea. Gordon then left first and was to stop at Rossa Creek to rig his truck up to assist Tommy in his semi-trailer to cross the heavy bull-dust. When Tommy arrived they ran out a long chain to attach to the semi but was little short so Gordon’s truck needed to be backed up a little. Tommy got in and told Gordon he was going to back over the blocks that were behind the rear wheels and wanted Gordon to then relocate them however Gordon didn’t hear properly and began moving the blocks whilst Tommy was reversing. Tommy heard Gordon yelling so engaged fist and drove forward before jumping out to check on Gordon. He realized he had run over Gordon’s arm causing a severed artery and an open wound with the bone protruding.

Tommy managed to locate a small piece of rope from under the seat of the truck and tried it around the top of Gordon’s arm. He was too weak to lift into the truck so Tommy rolled his swag out and left him to drive onto Drumduff station and get help. He arrived at the station to inform them of the emergency and make plans for a rescue.

After an hour of confusion they finally contacted the RFDS (Royal Flying Doctor Service) then loaded a stretcher bed and drove back to Roosa Creek to collect Gordon. Upon arrival, they thought he had died however Gordon was able to speak to them. They took him back to the station where the RFDS was waiting. Sighting the horrific injury, the doctor wanted to amputate but Gordon wouldn’t allow it so he did what he could and they flew him back to Cairns Base Hospital where he underwent emergency surgery. Meanwhile, back at Drumduff, Tommy was stranded with two trucks fully loaded on the way to Koolatah without a second driver. Gordon Arnold, the manager of Wrotham Park, was due to fly to Drumduff in the morning so Tommy rang Bonnie to arrange for Tommy junior to be collected from Chillagoe. The next day Tommy junior was collected by Gordon Arnold and flown out the Drumduff station where he took over the driving to Koolatah station, unloaded, then turned around and drove back to Chillagoe.

Tommy junior was 12yo at the time and obviously very capable of driving trucks as taught by Tommy. In regard to Gordon’s arm, meat and skin were grafted from his thigh to his arm and over time his arm healed and he had no problem lifting a glass of beer.

Ford Motor Company

In 1999 Tommy flew down to Victoria to attend the Ford Retro Run from the Broadmeadows factory to the Ford Motor Company Museum in Geelong with his daughter Judy. Whilst going to the Ford museum, Judy and Tommy became separated only to be located talking to some people of importance. In true Tommy style, he had noticed the wrong information had been provided regarding the age of a Ford flathead engine and gearbox on display. A discussion started began between himself and a couple of other gentlemen who agreed with Tommy that a 1937 model Ford V8 engine was in fact labeled as a 1935 model. As it happened the curator was spotted walking past and they called him over the point out the error. “Gee Tommy, I’m glad you told me that!” Tommy then said “And see that car over there” pointing at a Ford sedan, “that’s not a 1948 Ford either, it’s a 1946 or 47”. “And how do you know that Tommy?” Tommy took him over and showed him how he knew. “Gee Tommy, we never knew that either!” Tommy was then asked to come down at some later date to assist to sort out any further errors but he never got around to it – there was too much to do in Chillagoe.

Tommy in 2017

Tommy Prior lives alone now.  Bonnie past away in 2009. His long-term family home is down a dusty, discreet track near the Chillagoe aerodrome. Tommy not only has great people skills but is remarkable in so many other ways. His outstanding Ford collection is an unexpected surprise to those who visit his fuel depot. Some vehicles are equal to the best examples of their type anywhere and include a Diamond White Ford Falcon ‘Super Roo’ sealed in a plastic bubble to ensure it remains one of the best examples of a GT Falcon in the world.

He loves the company of tourists and warmly greets visitors from around the world. Tommy welcomes the opportunity to show off his remarkable collection housed in an open tin shed for a gold coin donation although I have spotted a $50 note pushed into his donation box. Tommy, his house, and vehicles typifies the Outback and a visit will remain in your memory for many years.

In a perfect world, his home and vehicles will eventually become a museum so that people can see how this legend lived his life and chased his passion.

Further information can be found at http://www.youtube.com

About Gary Bondeson

Gary has been directly involved in tourism in Far North Queensland since the 1990’s. His passion for the area was inspired by the rich history and many points of interest concentrated in the region and felt a strong desire to share this with others. Gary is heavily involved with tourism development and even co-hosted an episode of the popular travel show 'The Great Outdoors’ with Tom Williams showing the limestone caves of Chillagoe located 200kms west of Cairns. After being away for 5 years, Gary has now returned to the area that he holds so dear to his heart to share his knowledge and experience with those who wish to have a Fair Dinkum Ozzy experience.

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